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Doug Block, 51 Birch Street, Truly Indie: The Interview

[originally published November 12, 2006]

But First, A Long Introduction: 2006 = Year One of the New Self-Distribution Movement or go on you sexy hard working self-distributin' filmmakers!

I am very happy with how some of my fellow indie filmmakers & would be indie filmmakers & indie film fans are tackling "the distribution problem" this year. 2006 is a record year for self-distribution/partial self-distribution & experimental distribution projects in the US independent film scene (i know 'cause i've been keeping track. this year, more than any other year in history, has seen more high quality ultra-low budget indies/"real indies", fiction & doc features, getting in front of an audience -outside of festivals -due to distribution efforts by the filmmakers. will have an year end report on this phenomenon in late Dec. or early Jan.). A couple of Saturday's ago I went to see Mutual Appreciation in DC & spoke briefly with indie filmmaker & self-distributor Andrew Bujalski. And then last Saturday I screened my film Date Number One in DC & then after all the work was done I went to see Borat. It was interesting being at Borat because the several hundred people there, for the most part, probably did not know - in painful detail - about ALL THE WORK that happened between completion of the film and them seeing it in a comfortable stadium seating containing gigantic screen mall movie theater. Take that amount of work and multiply that by 100 (due to lack of: studio level funding, experience, a track record & contacts, & the resulting power to influence) & add the stress of not having any extra money or not enough money and not enough helpers and not enough sleep and then you might have a good understanding of the kind of work challenge that Bujalski & Doug Block & other self-distributing filmmakers are confronting this year as they take their movies to audiences in various cities. One of this year's specially noteworthy cases of self-distribution is Doug Block's documentary about the mysteries of his parent's marriage: 51 Birch Street, and the service deal route that is now taking the film before theatrical audiences. Block & business partners chose the Landmark Theaters affiliated distributor-for-hire service Truly Indie to assist them in getting their award winning & well reviewed movie out to the theaters. Here is an e-mail interview, conducted within the last couple of weeks, with Mr. Block regarding his bold & apparently very-rewarding-on-certain-levels self-distribution project (and yes, I do bring up the Caveh Zahedi/Sex Addict/Mark Cuban issue from earlier this year, can't really leave that out of a Landmark related indie film post can i?, well, at least not this year :):

Interview with Doug Block regarding distributing 51 Birch Street with Truly Indie's help

Sujewa: Can you explain how Truly Indie works? As far as I understand it is a distributor-for-hire service: a flat fee is paid to Landmark's Truly Indie for getting your film screened at a certain number of theaters & you get to keep the $s earned from ticket sales, right?

Doug: Once you get chosen and agree to go with them you're given a list of Truly Indie cities (about 20), the local Landmark theater it will show in that city, the seat numbers, ticket prices, and an exact fee it will cost for that city down to the dollar. The fee includes a publicist in each city (overseen by Melissa Raddatz, the Landmark Director of Publicity), 2 ads in the local paper of record, and in return you keep 100% of the box office. Most important of all, you keep all other rights to your film.

Sujewa: What made you decide to purchase Truly Indie's services, instead of attempting to book the film with various theaters by yourself (or did you try to do that first?)?

Doug: We didn't want to do all the work ourselves. Truly Indie seemed like a good blend of DIY and going with a traditional distributor. And we were able to raise money from investors to support a theatrical release, our exec producers Priddy Brothers Entertainment. They were very intrigued by the Truly Indie model.

Sujewa: How was the 51 Birch Street opening in NYC? The film certainly received some excellent press coverage. And was Truly Indie helpful in securing that coverage or did you have to do most of the press work?

Doug: The NYC opening was fantastic. Helped greatly, of course, by a Sunday NY Times feature and a rave of raves from A.O. Scott in the Times. We got the Sunday piece ourselves, through a combination of knowing John Anderson from way back and serendipity. He happened to be a juror at the Miami FF where we had our U.S. premiere, so he got to see it early with a full house and my father and his wife doing a Q&A with me. The press has really built on itself, success builds that way, but a good deal of the early press was blogs, which we mostly got ourselves. But Truly Indie helped out a good deal and Melissa Raddatz somehow managed to get A.O. Scott to do the Times review, which was critical. We felt of all the Times critics he would "get" the film.

Sujewa: I was at a Mutual Appreciation Q & A with Andrew Bujalski in DC last night & he said he never expected to become a film distributor but now he finds himself as one. Film distribution certainly comes with a serious amount of challenges. How do you feel about being a distributor (even though you have a very useful partner in Truly Indie)?

Doug: Yes, it's been a very good working relationship with Truly Indie. They're very involved and they welcome our collaboration. A total team effort, which we wouldn't have with a larger distributor probably. But if you go with Truly Indie, or any service deal distributor, or even any small distributor, expect to do a LOT of the work yourself. I've been very lucky to have a great producing partner, Lori Cheatle, who's shared the load with me, and we have fun working together. But distribution, in general, is just a huge amount of work, and the marketing and outreach is never-ending. We worked really hard making the film and it hasn't eased up a bit since we finished.

Sujewa: What, if any, is the down side, as far as you can tell now, about working with Truly Indie?

Doug: Given how well the film was received, both critically and with audiences, it would have been nice to have a distributor that could have kept the momentum going with bigger ads. But that's hardly a downside since we knew that's not what Truly Indie does going in. The whole point of our theatrical was to see if we could at the very least raise the awareness of the film both with the public at large and within the industry. Because it's all about selling the DVDs down the line. And you need to get it on people's radar somehow for the DVD to be in demand. There's a ton of films out there and it's hard to break through the clutter. And I think Truly Indie has definitely helped us accomplish that. So, sorry, can't give you too much down side. Even having to raise the money to pay the fees has been a blessing in disguise. We now have a partnership with the Priddy Brothers that gives us access to greater resources and will carry forward into future projects.

Sujewa: In my experience theatrical screenings/distribution takes a lot of work. Are you working on 51 Birch Street distribution full time these days or are you able to maintain your regular job & also do the work required by distribution?

Doug: Getting your film distributed is like having 3 full-time jobs at the same time, none of which pay. I've managed to stay afloat with occasional freelance work, consulting, some wedding videos (which, yes, I still shoot), and honorariums. But it's been a sucky year income-wise. Hopefully, it'll pay off next year and for years to come. I believe that the laws of compensation aren't necessarily direct. They're circuitous.

Sujewa: Were you ever wary of working with Landmark/Truly Indie because of owner Mark Cuban's strange & counterproductive behavior with the I Am A Sex Addict release earlier this year (Cuban canceled the premiere of Sex Addict in a Landmark Theater a week prior to the event as a protest against Comcast's dealings with one of his businesses, Comcast being the cable VOD partner of IFC Films for Sex Addict, if I recall correctly)?

Doug: No, I like Mark Cuban. What happened with Caveh was unfortunate, but I like that Cuban's bold and thinks outside the box. Everyone knows the traditional distribution model is broken, but he's one of the few trying to do something about it. I like that he has his own blog and answers his own email. I have a lot of respect for what he's done with 2929 and integrating the companies under its umbrella (Truly Indie, HDNet, Magnolia and Landmark Theatres). It may not be visionary but it's very smart, and from what I've seen it works very well. Our emails to the Truly Indie core group often get cc'd to everyone, including Cuban. And I love that he has the attention of the entire industry. When the press release for 51 Birch Street went out, it was covered widely because we were doing the deal with Mark Cuban's Truly Indie, which wouldn't have happened with other distributors, believe me.

Sujewa: If the initial handful of cities respond well to 51 Birch's theatrical, do you & Truly Indie have plans to expand to more cities or is it on to DVD & cable after the currently scheduled theatrical engagements?

Doug: We definitely will be expanding to more cities, both with Truly Indie's help and independently. We've already booked a dozen cities and have more inquiries from theaters and semi-theatrical venues coming all the time. We'll be focusing mainly on calendar houses where the cost to us is pretty much non-existent.

Sujewa: All business/financial & work load concerns aside, does it feel awesome to share the film about your parents with audiences in movie theaters?

Doug: Of course! I became a filmmaker because I loved the experience of seeing movies in theaters with audiences. To be sharing my own work in theaters AND to have it be with a personal film AND have it so spectacularly well received... well, it doesn't get any better.

Thanks Doug!

Go here to find out the latest about 51 Birch Street and upcoming screenings.

11/19 update:
And go here for a few more important points about Truly Indie, at Doug's follow up post to this interview.

- Sujewa


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